There’s No Turning Back on Digital Gov, U.S. CTO Says

White House CTO Megan Smith says that even though the Obama administration will soon come to an end, the work on digital government is only beginning.

by / September 12, 2016
From left, U.S. CTO Megan Smith and Deputy U.S. CTO Alexander Macgillivray speak about the work on the horizon for federal IT and why they believe the president's digital innovation programs are likely to endure. Jason Shueh

SAN FRANCISCO — With the Obama administration coming to a close this January, the question circulating in the tech community isn’t so much about next IT projects, but whether his innovation initiatives — and the government tech movement as a whole — will live on.

At TechCrunch Disrupt on Sept. 12, U.S. CTO Megan Smith expressed her opinion, answering the query with an emphatic yes. The former Google exec was joined by her Deputy CTO Alex Macgillivray, formerly a policy analyst at Twitter, to give a glimpse into the White House’s current digital work — and to ease fears of this nature. And those fears aren't necessarily unfounded, as some have whispered concerns that 18F, U.S. Digital Service (USDS) and the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) may be closed by an incoming administration attempting to rebrand its IT policies and practices.

Smith said that no matter the party or president voted into the White House, going backward and ending such programs was a highly unlikely option, especially when considering the high demand to enhance the nation’s digital footprint. 

“This is an idea whose time has come, it is the beginning of digital government, and it’s only going to accelerate,” Smith said. “I’m confident that whatever happens, it will continue.”

Her confident statements were not based on a specific piece of policy or any commitment from one of the presidential candidates — though Hillary Clinton has incorporated Obama's digital service teams into her IT policy — but instead, Smith said her optimism stemmed from the observation that the federal government had no choice but to invest in digital innovation if it wanted to keep pace with the rest of the world.

The political partisanship, Smith said, takes a backseat to the hand-to-mouth demands of citizen services. Examples of this work by 18F, the roughly 200-person digital service team that helps agencies build and buy IT services, include projects to improve the application process for the U.S. immigration system, its platform to help prospective college students find the right schools, and revamps to agency websites like the Federal Election Commission to make politicians more accountable for political fundraising.

As for consulting group USDS and PIF, a one-year federal innovation program, they have equally as helpful; both of these groups have been credited with rescuing the mired health insurance exchange HealthCare.gov in 2014, and serving as go-to guides to improve procurement and the unwieldy and often costly array of government services.

The White House has done its best to inoculate each of these three groups and protect them against any kind of administrative upheaval by weaving them into the General Services Administration's Technology Transformation Service.

Smith and Macgillivray said the real hurdle facing government isn’t about having a place to put innovators from Silicon Valley and the private sector, but actually hiring that kind of top-quality talent on a regular basis. Technologists, designers and policy analysts often come to the programs for limited terms, rotating in and out of agencies through one- to two-year engagements. The goal is to harness this level of ingenuity on an ongoing basis.

“How do we get our tech community to do a tour of duty?” Smith asked, urging the event’s crowd of technologists to apply for one of these groups' roughly two-year contracts.

Similarly, the two echoed the president’s call for collaboration issued in March when he visited the tech and industry conference South by Southwest. Macgillivray emphasized that whether it's an issue of privacy and encryption, making law enforcement data more transparent, or bridging the digital divide, that there will be a host of national challenges remaining. To solve these, he said the federal government will need the support and input from the private sector, nonprofits, academics and citizens to uncover the right solutions.

“It’s in these hard problems where we will have to dive in together,” Macgillivray said.

The two did not indicate where they might be headed after the president's final term. Macgillivray said he was too focused on the current projects, and Smith said that whatever she did, it would have to involve something that impacted people's lives in a meaningful way. Both said that they were trying to hold themselves to the present as much as possible.

Smith related the experience to an Olympic relay race. "We have the baton," she said, "so we’re running as fast as we can."

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.